Christianity SeminarThis Fall 2014 Meeting report was compiled by Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary in New York
The Fourth R 28-2
March-April 2015

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At the November meetings in San Diego, the first major sign emerged that Westar’s Christianity Seminar may play a significant role in how scholarship and the American public rethink early Christian history. The Christianity Seminar took votes of historic proportions, collectively setting aside what had been assumed for the last five generations and opening up a new collaborative path forward.

With at least twenty-five internationally known scholars in attendance, the Seminar voted with substantial majorities to rule “gnosticism,” the reigning boogey man of early Christian history, out of order. In successive votes, the following dramatic positions were taken:

  • The category of gnosticism needs to be dismantled. (Voted Red)
  • Michael Williams and Karen King have made compelling cases that the category “Gnosticism”—whether it names an ancient religion equivalent to “Judaism” or “Christianity” or it functions as a typological category for the grouping of various teachers, writings, and movements—no longer works. (Voted Red)
  • The relegation of gnosticism to the scholarly sidelines removes a confusing category for our ongoing Christianity Seminar work in rethinking the history of early Christianity. (Voted Pink)

It is difficult to overestimate what these decisions mean for the Seminar’s resolve to rewrite the history of early Christianity and for broader historical positions long held about how Christianity came into being. For at least a century “Gnosticism” has been understood as the primary and earliest major heresy that threatened a pre-ordained trajectory from the message of Jesus to the “Church Eternal.” Now, according to the Christianity Seminar, the idea that such a thing as “gnosticism” even existed is simply off the table.

The Christianity Seminar’s collective actions at its San Diego sessions so blatantly contradict the commonly-held story of how Christianity emerged that these votes must be summarized clearly. The Seminar did not vote that heretical gnosticism was so wrong in its ideas and beliefs that it can never be considered “Christian.” Nor did it conclude that “gnosticism” was not really so bad, and therefore was not a heresy. Rather, after strong discussion of major papers, the Seminar said clearly that most historians of the past 100+ years were wrong in thinking that such a phenomenon as “gnosticism” ever existed. In other words, historians must rethink the entire assumption that a unified heretical “gnosticism” played a primary role in how early Christianity came into being.

How Did This Happen?

The Seminar’s votes at the November meeting were informed by cutting-edge scholars who, over the past fifteen years or more, have made a thorough case against the existence of gnosticism.

Primary among these is Karen King, Harvard Divinity School Hollis Professor of Divinity, who participated in the San Diego sessions. King has spent much of her career mapping out the consequences of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 and reframing the way early Christian history can be written in the wake of Nag Hammadi. Two of her major books, What Is Gnosticism? and The Secret Revelation of John, have thoroughly critiqued the ways nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars formulated the “gnosticism” thesis. In doing so, King has laid the foundations for reformulations of how Christianity began. King’s work about “gnosticism” was summarized in a long paper by Hal Taussig (soon to be published in Westar’s Forum).

Other leading scholars also wrote papers for the San Diego sessions. Michael Williams, long-term colleague of King and author of the 1996 book, Rethinking Gnosticism, presented a clear history of recent scholarship undermining the idea of “gnosticism.” David Brakke, author of the recent book, The Gnostics, laid out his position against “gnosticism” and advocated for a smaller and much less central phenomenon he calls “gnostics.” Denise Buell demonstrated how the notion of “gnosticism” developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the context of controversies between various church and spiritualist movements. Seminar Fellows Maia Kotrosits and Brandon Scott appreciated King’s The Secret Revelation of John as a prime example of how to think about early Christianity’s emergence without using the notion of “gnosticism” at all.

The way the Christianity Seminar is appropriating the innovative works of King, Williams, Buell, Brakke, and others in order to rethink an entire wing of work on early Christianity resembles the ways the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s and early 1990s was responding to new perspectives on the historical Jesus in scholarship just prior to the Seminar’s work. That is, the Jesus Seminar’s collective work was not possible without the prior scholarship of John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Burton Mack, Marcus Borg, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, and John Kloppenborg.

An Overview of the Voting in San Diego

Additional relevant ballot results from the San Diego session are:

  • Scholarship now needs a less blunt tool/analytical category than gnosticism for examination of the Jesus/Christ(ian) literature of the second and third centuries. (Voted Red)
  • The wealth of documents that Nag Hammadi provides to both scholarship and the public has been blocked or caricatured by the imposition of the gnostic label on them. These documents offer important information to scholarship about the Jesus/Christ(ian) movements in the second and third century. (Voted Red)
  • The Secret Revelation of John is Christian. (Voted Pink)
  • Without an intense scrutiny of what we label Christian and why, orthodox coherence and directionality will be the implicit underwriters of our history. (Voted Red)
  • In describing pre-Nicene Christianity we should discard the category variously called “the Great Church,” “(emerging) Catholicism,” “mainstream Christianity,” or “proto-orthodoxy.” (Voted Red)
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company should be liberated from “proto-orthodoxy” and allowed to “be their own idiosyncratic selves.” (Voted Red)
  • The post-Constantinian project of creating a “catholic” Church, characterized by uniform theologies, structures, and practices, co-opted selected earlier Christian persons and groups to legitimate that project and should not determine our understanding of those persons and groups. (Voted Red)
  • The Gospel of Judas should lead historians to discard the present category “Sethianism” and its reconstructed history and instead to create a new one, called “the Gnostics,” and start over on its history. (Voted Pink)

These results clearly endorse the work of King and others. Although the last item on the above ballots also supports, at a pink level, David Brakke’s notion of a smaller and much
less influential group he calls “the Gnostics,” the affirmation of this ballot item needs to be understood in the context of the other ballot results, in particular:

  • Brakke’s own rejection of “gnosticism” as an adequate analytical category in the study of early Christianity
  • the relative smallness of Brakke’s “Gnostics” group, compared to the standard of the last century of scholarship, which portrayed “gnosticism” and “gnostics” as the primary and pervasive heresy of the second and early third centuries
  • the thorough rejection of gnosticism in the major ballots on the issue

The First Wave of Consequences of This Major Shift

The implications of this major pivot in the Christianity Seminar are—as of this moment—too broad to be fully assessed. For now we only know that the implications are many and significant. There are, nevertheless, two implications for the work of the Seminar that have been identified in the ballot items themselves.

1. A body blow to the standard version of early Christian history, which sees the triumph of orthodox belief as one of the most fundamental aspects of pre-Nicene Christianity’s emergence.

It turns out that this standard twentieth-century characterization of Christianity depended in great part on the imaginary existence of a pervasive heretical version of Christianity called “gnosticism.” Without this falsely constructed version of a crucial battle in the second and third centuries between early orthodox Christians and fiercely competitive and heretical “gnostic” Christians, the discourse itself of “orthodoxy versus heresy” becomes a much shakier enterprise. Here the forthright ballot formulations of David Brakke, supported strongly by the Seminar votes, make clear what is at stake for the larger Christianity Seminar project. These “all red” votes by the Seminar propose to:

  • discard the category variously called “the Great Church,” “(emerging) Catholicism,” “mainstream Christianity,” or “proto-orthodoxy”
  • liberate “Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company . . . from “protoorthodoxy” and allow them to “be their own idiosyncratic selves”
  • Not confuse “the post-Constantinian project of creating a ‘catholic’ Church, characterized by uniform theologies, structures, and practices, with earlier Christian persons and groups”

Perhaps even more eloquent in its rejection of the default characterization of Christianity as proper belief was the strongly endorsed ballot item from Maia Kotrosits’s paper that “without an intense scrutiny of what we label Christian and why, orthodox coherence and directionality will be the implicit underwriters of our history.” Once the pivotal 125-225 ce era cannot be framed as the emergence of proto-orthodox belief over errant “gnostic” belief, the construction of early Christianity as primarily creedal seems more like a caricature. Without “proper belief” taking up all the analytical oxygen for this era, other analytical categories can be used to contribute to how Christianity emerged.

2. The startling emergence of more recently discovered documents of Jesus people and Christ movements out of the shadow of alleged gnostic heresy as sources for a fuller picture of Christian beginnings.

One of the main effects of the dependence on “gnosticism” for understanding the processes within Jesus and Christ movements of the second and early-third century was that the wide range of Jesus/Christ-related documents discovered since 1850 were by and large deemed to be “gnostic.” They were therefore regarded as either heresy or second-rate theology. This meant, for instance, that fifty-two such documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 were almost immediately considered “gnostic,” and as such either problematic or damaging to what early Christianity was really about.

The Jesus Seminar was one of the first scholarly venues to contradict this picture of such recently discovered documents, when it rejected earlier scholarship that defined the Gospel of Thomas as both “gnostic” and from the second century. Instead, the Jesus Seminar led scholarship over the last thirty years in noticing the relative impossibility of defining this gospel as “gnostic.” More recently, similar work has been done on a number of these discoveries such as the Secret Revelation of John, the Sayings of Sextus, the Odes of Solomon, the Letter of Peter to Philip, the Gospel of Mary, the Thunder: Perfect Mind, and the Gospel of Truth.

But many more of these discoveries still lay hidden under the assumption that they are a part of “gnosticism,” automatically marginalizing their relevance. With the Christianity Seminar now rejecting “gnosticism” as a viable analytical category for the study of early Christianity, an even stronger possibility exists to integrate many of these newer documents into more diverse and complex pictures of the emerging Christian phenomena. In two different ballot items in San Diego, the Christianity Seminar affirmed strongly the necessity to claim Nag Hammadi and other recently discovered works from the first two centuries as an integral part of rethinking early Christian history.

Such progress hauntingly now manifests itself for the Christianity Seminar in the crucial need for scholars who know the Nag Hammadi and other documents well, and who can help elaborate their meanings and track how early Christianity developed in ways quite different than has been perceived so far. This new direction presses current and future scholars to redouble their study of the recently discovered documents.

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